Jessie Reyez Releases Boldly Original Debut Album ‘Before Love Came to Kill Us’ 

Canadian singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez broke through in 2016 with her single “Figures.” Contemporary R&B, even if you use the term in the broadest sense, is not exactly abounding with wildly original eccentric artists. Reyez was a breath of a fresh air, and the world soon took notice, as her 2017 debut EP “Kiddo” won her the designation of “Best New Artist” at the Juno Awards, and her follow-up, the next year’s “Being Human in Public” won “R&B/Soul Recording of the Year.” Reyez went on to collaborate with the likes of Eminem, and write songs for artists including Calvin Harris and Normani. Now, she presents her long-awaited debut album “Before Love Came to Kill Us,” a dark, romantic set of songs with likely more quirk and personality than anything in the genre as of late. 

Opener “Do You Love Her” begins with the striking line “I should have fucked your friends.” From the onset, Reyez makes it clear she’s not messing around. The most immediately striking feature in Reyez’s music is her unique voice — a sort of quirky, affected baby voice without many precedents. Perhaps there’s a tinge of Macy Grey, and a likeness to Sierra Casady of CocoRosie. In fact, there’s also a similarity to one of the many voices Halsey puts on. If this crazy, alien manner of singing is somehow coming in vogue, it’s a truly bizarre phenomenon. At any rate, it makes for some thoroughly engaging music. Over florid piano, Reyez makes statements like “If I blow your brains out / I could kiss it better” and “Kiss me, I’m the monster that you made,” with jarring screams interspersed with bits of operatic vibrato. It’s a delightfully deranged introduction.  

“Deaf (Who Are You)” has a playful, offbeat feel, with a springy, bouncy beat built from a pitch-shifting vocal sample — it’s a perfect backdrop for Reyez’s whimsical antics. With no shortage of attitude, Reyez meanders through her fanciful melodies, throwing out lines like ”Go get’cha bitch / She all on my dick.” Next, she dips into downtempo ‘90s lounge fare, with jazzy chords and bohemian vocal stylings that echo “Educated Guess”-era Ani diFranco. She withdraws from the feisty, animated outpourings of the previous tracks, and dons a soft, sultry voice, but keeps it menacing in her lyrics, with chorus lines of “I’d kill all intruders / ‘Cause my love is ruthless.”   

“Coffin” continues, sonically and lyrically, in the same vein as “Intruders,” with lines like “You make me want to jump off the roof / ‘Cause I love you to death.” It’s the same zany excesses channeled in a different direction. A classic hip-hop beat drops, setting the stage for an appearance by none other than Eminem. Reyez made an invaluable contribution to Eminem’s 2018 album “Kamikaze,” and he has duly returned the favor. He enters sounding like a caricature of himself — in the best possible way. The beat adjusts to accommodate his idiosyncracies, and Em showcases all his trademark tricks, packing at least a whole song’s worth of substance into his modest verse.

Reyez sounds especially loopy on “Ankles,” splattering her lines over the bass-heavy instrumental with a bold disregard for convention that makes all the difference. Slurred hi hats throw off the balance in one direction, as Reyez tosses out bits just close enough to the expected rhythmic notches to carry you along for the wild ride. Regarding the song title, it comes from a refrain of “These bitches don’t make it to my ankles,” punctuated by calls of “Levels? Nah. Levels? Nah.” The daredevil spontaneity of it all is what sets it apart. Next comes single “Imported,” featuring rapper 6lack, who humorously introduces himself, “Hi, my name is Black / And sometimes people call me Six-lack.” Reyez and 6lack make a natural team, trading duties on verses, and joining for the chorus. The track delves deeper into the laidback, deconstructed groove sketched out in previous tracks. Reyez sings some of her lines with a rare abandon, pausing longer than expected in between words, however she fancies, imparting a fresh authenticity. A love song from a novel angle, it’s about two parties in struggling relationships of their own finding each other. 

On “La Memoria,” melodramatic, breathy “ooh ah” vocals, along with bent-up, pitched-down samples, form a misty backdrop, over which Reyez sings in Spanish, starting relatively smoothly, then escalating into strained, eccentric utterances. A highlight is a spoken word bit in the end in which Reyez reveals, “When the red is almost black / And the rose is almost dead / That is my favorite color,” all the while  overdubbing every line in Spanish. It’s an instance of another quality that sets Reyez apart — the gothic, romantic element encapsulated in the album title. “Same Side”

has a stream of consciousness feel, something perfect for Reyez’s way of trailing off impulsively in all types of musical directions for fleeting moments. Lyrics like “You’re such an asshole / But I see a prince / And I’m a good girl / But you see a bitch“ seem like modest profundity masquerading as crass simplicity. 

When Reyez sings, “But I’m a fucking monster” on “Roof,” she has built us up to it, and it comes across as expected. For the refrain of “Everything I do hits the roof,” she sings muffled, as if through a phone with poor reception, then crystal clear, exposing us to the realization of thoughts in real time. She takes a detour on “Dope,” a silly, lighthearted upbeat number, with an old school beat, cartoony interjections of “That shit dope,” vocal stutters, and spliced samples. It’s a festive riot of a tune, and a definite standout. “Kill Us” shifts rather dramatically, with a vaguely ‘90s guitar riff and a spirit that emanates from that sound. The titular line, “Before love came to kill us” comes out in this tune, and in an album so full of undiluted emotion and fanciful maneuvers, the buildup to the eleventh track makes the sound of the anticipated phrase ever so satisfyingly, imparting an epic feel to the album, and tying everything together. The title is self-explanatory enough, and all the other songs seem to converge neatly in this track. Reyez’s falsetto flights are immaculate, and fractured, pitch-bending notes pan out of the barren scene left after her final utterance. 

“Love In the Dark” begins as a simple piano and vocals tune. Then flowery strings enter, cueing a classic, theatrical chorus, in which Reyez curls up her lips upon certain words, in a way that recalls Sia’s signature stylings. The song is full of unabashedly sappy lyrics like “We’re only humans floating on a rock / But I think that you are made of stardust.” If it’s a bit cliche, that somehow seems to only make it more powerful. Reyez’s voice sounds almost insufferably scratchy at certain points, which makes sense as she admittedly cried when writing the song. Come the climactic lines, “’Cause when the stars are falling down / There’s love in the dark,” the album has reached an emotional apex. “I Do” lingers in Reyez’s fantastical sonic sphere, with a backdrop of intricate guitar work and reverb-soaked samples. Sinuous, overlapping backing vocals and elegant piano enter the mix, followed by gospel choirs. Considering the title, the ambitious development makes sense, as if expressing the fulfilment of wishes once held back, finally achieving full realization. 

The album ends with “Figures,” Reyez’s breakthrough single from “Kiddo,” thrown in for good measure. A Beyond-tired chord progression that serves as the basis for countless pop songs is still kept fresh because of Reyez’s starkly original voice. The minimal guitar backing lets Reyez take center stage, emphasizing all her wildly expressive, madcap histrionics, and effectively demonstrating how exceptional of a performer she is. Written in the aftermath of a breakup, the song mixes standard sentimental fodder with authenticating vernacular —  “Something so special, something so real / Tell me, boy, how in the fuck would you feel?” What makes the song, however, is the simple titular phrase — “Figures,” as in “It figures,” or to use Reyez’s own words, as in “Of course this shit happened.” It’s the idea of noticing the dangers of an amorous involvement, diving headlong into the abyss anyway, and later reflecting that disaster was inevitable. To convey it so succinctly, just by saying “Figures,” is brilliant.    

After listening to Jessie Reyez’s debut album, one has to wonder, “Where did this come from?” Reyez’s songs are immediately soulful, cartoonishly outlandish, and an enigma altogether. It’s a bit like freak folk channeled via R&B conduits into a new gestalt that defies categorization. Whatever it is, “Before Love Came to Kill Us” is a bold, spirited, unique album that fully showcases the flair that flickered on Reyez’s previous EP releases. The lyrics are a mix of unpretentious colloquialisms and saccharine indulgences, and Reyez’s way of singing is so expressive and unpretentiously outre that it makes everything work. The deconstructed, bohemian blend of musical styles makes for a sonic palette that could hardly better suit her style, and the songs bleed into one another beautifully, making for an ambitious and impressive full-length debut.

Before Love Came to Kill Us” is available March 27 on Apple Music.